review: candles and cranes… (yusho)

Yusho

When Matthias Merges, who left Charlie Trotter’s last year after a decade and a half as its executive chef, opened Yusho in Chicago’s Avondale neighborhood (just north of Logan Square), I wasn’t surprised to see his peers flood social media outlets with congratulatory cheer. The enthusiasm for his new restaurant was unanimous, the compliments overwhelming.

Normally, I’m skeptical about this kind of public backslapping among industry folk. I can never tell if they’re merely extending collegial courtesy, or genuine praise.

So, I bumped Yusho to the top of my Chicago itinerary, eager to discover for myself what this culinary lion, now released to the wild, was cooking.

After my visit in early February, I join others in applause.  Yusho was great.

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1st Course: Tuna Tartare

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Although I had planned to go to Yusho alone, a friend of mine, who is in the restaurant industry, decided to come with me at the last-minute. So, in full disclosure, we were both known to the house when we arrived.  And, in full disclosure, we were refused a bill at the end of the night.

And, while I’m making caveats, I should also tell you that Merges offered to have his kitchen cook for us (he remained at the expediting pass, just a few feet down from us at the bar, all night). We accepted. So, it wasn’t until after our dinner, when I asked to see a copy of the menu, that I realized that very little of what we had was actually offered to the public at the time. Perhaps we got a preview of new dishes in development, or a commingling of different dishes on his menu, or products of creative legwork, on the fly.  Whatever the case may be, know that our meal was exceptional in this way.

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8th Course: Kama

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“Yusho” is a Japanese toast, a winning call to celebration.  And on that note, Merges invites you to party in the streets of Japan, with a grill and a skewer.

Thirteen courses we had, and they were all very good.  Some of them were spectacular, like a plate of grilled salmon belly, fatty and flavorful, served with “takoyaki,” a popular Japanese street food.  Normally, these little balls – the size of ping pongs, made by pouring batter into a special griddle – contain a nugget of octopus (“tako”).  But Merges fills his with salmon roe, rewarding you with a salty gush of creamy warmth when you bite into them. That was delicious. And it’s on the menu. You must order it.

Also spectacular was a stuffed chicken wing; boneless, juicy, and meaty.  It came dusted with bonito salt and a dash of lime.  You must order this too.

And there arrived an entire, grilled fish collar, with pickled vegetables and steamed buns.  Forgive me, I forgot what kind of fish it was. But that’s not really important. All you need to know is that we stripped that collar clean of its soft, fatty flesh, making little sandwiches with it. I’m not sure if this one is on the menu. But if you see it, get it.

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3rd Course: Chicken Liver

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Most of the dishes were comforting; simple, yet impeccable; like a square of amedei, delicate and clean, served with some miso and quick pickles. Or, maitake mushroom – a meaty monster – grilled and served with a coddled egg, barely set, and some onions. This one might have been my favorite dish.

Not everything we were served came off the grill, though.

Our first course was a beautifully assembled temaki kit. It arrived on a tray lined with Asian newsprint. There were little bowls of condiments, and to the lower left corner, a cup of tuna tartare.  I had watched Jennifer Petrusky, also formerly of Charlie Trotter’s, finely mince that tuna, not knowing it was meant for us.  It was beautiful – a blush of pink, now turned into spreadable wonder, rolled in nori with some togarashi and a bit of umeboshi.  I’m pretty sure this one wasn’t on the menu.

And I’m pretty sure that the “Tasting of Skins” wasn’t on the menu at the time either.  But I know it is now.  There were pork rinds, two kinds of chicken skin, and salmon skin. Normally, fish and chicken skins are never brittle enough. Very few get them right. Merges does. His were shatterific; his were awesome.

We were also served chicken liver mousse in a glass cocotte with a splash of yuzu and some crispy black sesame tuiles rolled into cigars. The mousse was smooth as silk, the tuiles were flaky and crisp, and slightly sweet too, just like those Chinese biscuits of my childhood, flecked with nori flakes, and sometimes sesame. Together, it was a creative bridge between East and West.

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12th Course: Soft Serve

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I honestly wasn’t expecting the desserts here to be very good.

Soft serve?  It sounded lazy.

But at Yusho, it’s a cool, creamy vehicle for buckwheat caramel, candied ginger, and a buttery waffle cone hat. I would have happily taken another.

Grilled mochi?  It sounded chewy, leathery, misused.

But at Yusho, it’s miraculously soft and warm, its thickness cut with passion fruit, matched with dark chocolate.

And tofu mousse?  Well, that just sounded like a bad idea. And bland.

But not here. Topped with yuzu granité and perfumed with Thai basil, it was a light and refreshing end.

So, I was pleasantly surprised.

*  *  *

Yusho.

*  *  *

The restaurant is a shotgun, long and narrow, but surprisingly spacious, especially in the back room. There are tables and booths, both. Or, you can perch at the bar, with a view of the kitchen line. That’s where you’ll find me when I return. It’s lovely up there at the counter, aglow with votive candles and paper cranes (but beware the dismount, you’ll be a few feet off the ground).

As it turned out, my friend and I both knew our server. Well, and she was great.  What else can I say?

One more thing: they’re proud of their cocktails here.  They make a lot of the ingredients for them in-house (like bitters, and other potions of which I know embarrassingly little).  My friend and I split a “Resurrection” (because I like bourbon). And it was very good.

*  *  *

I compliment the food here because it was very good.  Truly.

And, of course, we were treated very well. But I wouldn’t have expected anything less, whether or not I’m a friend of the house.

Yet, ultimately, what I loved most about Yusho, and why I heartily recommend it to you, is that it’s a product of passion.  You can feel it in the space, you can taste it in the food, and you’ll see it in Matthias Merges’s eyes.

What is that culinary lion doing, now that he’s been released to the wild?  Forget that he’s ex-fine dining, now grilling street food. Forget that he’s a white man making takoyaki.  What’s important, and impressive, is that he’s cooking from his heart.  And, isn’t that what it’s all about anyway?

At the end of our meal, I invited Merges to come to Kansas City to cook at the annual Chefs’ Classic at The American Restaurant. If you’re in Kansas City on June 24, 2012, I’m shamelessly plugging that good cause here.  If not, do go to Avondale, do climb up to that counter, and do order those takoyakis.

Here is the 13-course menu I had at Yusho:

1st Course
Tuna Tartare
Nori, pickled cucumbers, jalapeño, togarashi, lime.

2nd Course
Grilled Salmon Belly
Salmon roe “takoyaki.”

3rd Course
Chicken Liver
Black sesame tuiles, yuzu, and pickled shallots.

4th Course
Chicken Wing
Bonito salt, lime, Thai chile.

5th Course
Tasting of Skins
Pork, chicken, and salmon.

6th Course
Amadei
Quick pickles and miso.

7th Course
Oyster Soup
Oyster and onions.

8th Course
Kama
Steamed buns.

9th Course
Maitake
Poached egg.

10th Course
Striploin
Nori, shishito peppers.

11th Course
Tofu Mousse

12th Course
Soft Serve

13th Course
Grilled Mochi
Passion fruit, chocolate.

– 

To see all of the photos from this dinner, CLICK HERE.

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Yusho
2853 North Kedzie Avenue
Chicago, Illinois
773.9904.8558

~ by ulterior epicure on March 7, 2012.

9 Responses to “review: candles and cranes… (yusho)”

  1. It seems like the talent level here is stacked enough to make the dining experience a fine one. The passion of the chef seems to come through even in your photos. Great write up! This is on our list of places to try next time we’re in Chicago!

  2. Guessing it’s either Hamachi (yellowtail) or salmon collar.

  3. @David: I’m fairly certain it was hamachi. It definitely wasn’t salmon.

  4. I was in the back room the night you were there. You’re camera was hard not to miss :-). There’s been a surge of Japanese-inspired places in Chicago the last few months. Yusho is in a class of its own.

  5. @Henry S: Yikes. It horrifies me to hear you say that. I try to be as discreet with my camera as possible. But, I don’t think there were hooks under the bar, so I had to keep my camera on the bar. Or, you may be referring to my dining companion, who also had a huge camera and may or may not have been aiming it everywhere. :)

  6. Oh you got comped and you loved it!!! what a coincidence!!! Just one question, how did Merges know you were coming?? Your so-called reviews are getting more and more ludicrous… what’s the point of taking them seriously… you’re getting comped and you praise everything to the skies and usually throw in some minor quibble to try and show some integrity or whatever… this time you didn’t even do that.. whatever…

  7. @napadavid: This is not your first accusation here. If you question my integrity, you are free to stop reading my blog at any time.

  8. fwiw I do find your reviews to be a little less helpful than I once did because of the comps – not because I question your integrity, but because I know the “average” diner won’t get such things.

    That said, I’ll be at yusho in one week and am glad to see your thoughts on it regardless of whether I get “special” treatment or not.

    I don’t think anyone (UE himself) ever claimed this was a “professional” review site – whatever that means these days when I find most blogs more useful than Zagat or the NYT.

  9. I made a trip, on the recommendation of (I believe) our joint acquaintance with the conspicuous camera. Putting together my own tasting, I think I eventually compiled 12 plates while waiting for my wife’s perpetually delayed flight to land at O’Hare. I wasn’t as wowed with the savories as you two have been (stuffed chicken wing was flavorless, and the DIY seasonings offered little help, the uni and grilled oyster courses did not present the best specimens or use them particularly well), but there were flashes of brilliance (the tongue was wonderful, and a special of pickled herring with a puree of charred green onion was spectacular). I was deeply impressed by the commitment of the bar program (cocktails being a passion of mine) and the desserts (kalamansi mousse with peanut cake & coriander caramel was one of the best finishes to a meal I’ve had in a very long time) were the highlight of my meal. I’ll certainly go back, but my enthusiasm is somewhat restrained.

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